Faculty Profile: Barbara Swanson

What are you?

I am a musicologist.

What do you think is the best part of being a musicologist?

The best part is immersing myself wholeheartedly in a musical work, an idea, a cultural moment, a musician’s life, or some combination of these. Spending considerable time with such things feels like paying hommage to creativity itself and to the people at work in any cultural moment.  I also love the quirky experiences that come with musicological research—for example, leaving my passport at an obscure customs office in Rome (will they give it back?????!) in order to visit the Vatican Library, then being so in awe of the hushed and holy atmosphere of the library  that I could barely look at my books for two hours!

Swanson larger photo 1[1]

What areas do you specialize in?

I must say, I don’t love the word “specialize” as I am driven in my work by an ever-expanding curiosity that often tests my limits! That said, I work primarily on topics centered in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, including the musical activities of women, music and painting, plainchant and liturgy, and the revival of antiquity. I also work on the Ballets Russes and love topics in which music intersects with other disciplines. If I had to define my area of expertise, it would be music and visual culture broadly speaking.

Which project  of yours would you describe as your favourite? 

Each project I work on becomes my favourite! But a project with a special place in my memory is a book chapter on Barbara Strozzi that I wrote with my colleague and friend Dr. Richard Kolb. Each step required extensive conversation: from choosing our focal work (“Appresso ai molli argenti”), to exploring Strozzi’s innovative musical structuring of the poetic text, to identifying her unique approach to the musical lament. Although we wrote various sections separately, we evaluated each phrase together leaving no word unturned—which sometimes meant disagreements and … compromise! It was so satisfying to work closely with a colleague and to share the sense of accomplishment at the end. As he lives in New York State, we’re still waiting to share a celebratory drink in person!


Richard Kolb


What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on an amazing project in which I  think a lot about musical hands—in particular, the manual dexterity and manual memory of virtuosic musicians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The project is inspired by musical practice manuals, Venetian painters, and a significant art theoretical treatise that describes painters as musical virtuosos.  By comparing the training of musicians and painters (including improvisation and ornamentation), I explore how musicians in Venice not only wowed their musical listeners with amazing musical feats, but influenced a new improvisatory, performative style of painting. I love this project, as it requires me to think between  the disciplines of music history and art history. I’m grateful to Neven Prostran (MA in Musicology Graduate) for helping me to create a data bank of images and for my two years as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Visual Art and Art History at York University, which honed my skills in thinking interdisciplinarily.


Bovicelli’s Regole, passaggi di musica (Venice, 1595).

What do you like best about living in the City of Halifax?  

I love the parks and my neighbours and suspect that one of the great things about Halifax is its neighbourliness. I also love two beautifully-spacious venues: the downtown public library (so great to visit on a rainy day) and the IKEA cafeteria which overlooks Shubie Park.

Where can we read some of your work?

My page at academia.edu has full texts for much of my published work. But do watch for my forthcoming article on the ballet Liturgie (an unstaged work that was in production with the Ballets Russes ca. 1915). Published in the volume Artistic Migration and Identity (ed. Steven Huebner and Federico Lazzaro), my paper is the first full-length scholarly article on this ballet, and I’m so excited to see it in print! My companion essay “Futurist Constructions of the Sacred: Stravinsky, Liturgie, and the Problem of a Musical Score” will round out the story on this important ballet (nearing completion as I write this!).


Rehearsal Photo for Liturgie, choreography by Léonide Massine, 1915 https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b70026062

What advice can you offer any students interested in the performing arts?

Look for great teachers—teachers who meet you where you are and work with you to realize your unique potential. Best way to find them is word of mouth, as they are not always the most famous practitioners. Above all, seek out opportunities and people that you enjoy, try not to take yourself too seriously, and be kind to yourself and others when things feel rough.

Anything we’ve missed?

“What am I listening to at the moment?”



Almost anything performed by L’Arpeggiata.  When I need to energize myself, I listen to their performance of a Neapolitan Tarantella by Kircher.  And when I feel like singing along dramatically, I play Passacaglia della vita with L’Arpeggiata and Marco Beasley. Check out the links here if you too need to re-energize or wail loudly along with some music.




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